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Autograph seeking becoming bigger than event

Rick Chandler, Tahoe Daily Tribune

Tori Blank is a young phenom. She has only been autograph hunting for two years, but already one can see that she has the earmarks of greatness: speed, persistence and adorability. Yes, she has all the tools.

On Sunday the 8-year-old from Elk Grove squared off against some of the greatest professional athletes in sports, and the pros didn’t stand a chance. Witness her technique on the path between 16 and 17 at Edgewood, where she zeroed in on Chris Webber. Running ahead of the other autograph hounds, she planted herself directly in Webber’s path — something many NBA stars are reluctant to do on the basketball court — and turned on the charm. With a face straight from a Margaret Keane painting, who could resist? Webber couldn’t … another signature in the bag.

Tori is so good at this that Michael Jordan, perhaps the most treasured signature in sports, ordered the crowd to calm down so that he could sign her program.

“He was really nice,” said Tori, who was at the American Century Celebrity Golf Championships with her mom, Tracy, and her 10-year-old brother, Troy. The family lives in Elk Grove. “We were at the front railing near the scorer’s tent (on 18), and people kept pushing us, and I thought we were going to be crushed. But then Michael said he wasn’t going to sign anymore if they didn’t back off. “

Troy also got Jordan’s autograph, but his most treasured acquisition was Tennessee Titans tight end Frank Wycheck. Why? “My best friend is a big Tennessee fan,” explained Troy. “And I want to taunt him with it.”

Golf? Hah. For more and more at this event, it’s all about the autographs. Pro athletes have become jaded in recent years when it comes to signing their names, what with the boom in the sports memorabilia market. But the Tahoe celebs still have a soft spot for the kids, and most go out of their way to sign as many autographs as possible.

“The way I look at it, I’m proud to be accommodating to the fans,” said former Major League catcher Gary Carter. “It can be distracting, but I have never turned down a kid and I never will. ” But you develop a sixth sense about those who are only in it for profit, said Hall of Fame center Mario Lemieux. “I have a policy here, programs only,” said Lemieux. “I see the same (adults) out here every year with their 8x10s and jerseys, and I won’t sign those. To them it’s a business. This should be for the kids.”

Yes, in this game, it pays to be a kid, and the cuter the better. Alec Key, 8, of Reno, is a Beaver Cleaver lookalike who was wearing a cap covered in signatures, including those of Jason Kidd, Jim Shea and Joe Theismann. But his most treasured scribble was that of Jerry Rice.

“I went up to him at the practice tees, but he said ‘You’ll have to wait until I’m done, buddy,’ ” said Key. “So I waited for him for about two hours.”

True to his word, Rice returned and signed Alec’s cap. Meanwhile, Denver Broncos fan Andrew Wood, 11, revealed that he had traveled all the way from South Padre Island, Texas, to acquire only three signatures, those of John Elway, Mike Shanahan and Steve Beuerlein. What was his game plan? “You have to be polite,” he said. “And you have to be very patient.”

Over at the ninth hole, however, the scene was not as low-key. The action was fast and furious as hundreds of fans surrounded the tiny gated area where the celebs exited to make their way to the clubhouse. It was quite a madhouse, which prompted a chuckle from veteran autograph seeker Ronald Kasper.

“I come to this tournament every year, and every year I get fewer and fewer autographs,” said Kasper, who lives in Zephyr Cove. A dedicated signature hound who boasts “hundreds of thousands” of autographs in his collection, Kasper had somehow managed to smuggle in several items which are forbidden by tournament rules, including 8X10 glossies and magazines.

“For us this is not a business, it’s a hobby,” said Kasper, who has been all over the country in his pursuit of autographs. “I’ve been out here all 13 years, and it seems to me that autograph seekers are getting more and more aggressive. A lot of guys are selling this stuff, and the athletes know that.”

Kasper says that some memorabilia dealers will go so far as to hire children to get their autographs for them.

“It’s kind of a tipoff when a kid has an authentic Wizards’ jersey which is 10 sizes too big for him,” he said. “Then you know he’s probably working for somebody.”

Someone working strictly for himself, however, was Kaz Kosciolek, 11, of South Lake Tahoe. His pockets were stuffed with signed golf balls, signed gloves and other autographed treasures. How does he do it?

“My spot is in the front row of the bleachers (at the 18th green) said Kosciolek. “You ask them for stuff and they throw it up to you. Last year I got Dan Marino’s golf glove … I keep all of the stuff at home in a box.”

It’s guys like Kosciolek who are keeping this sport pure. And the celebs understand this, and are rolling with the youthful enthusiasm. Witness Theismann, who was signing golf balls and throwing them out to spectators in boats at the 17th hole.

“People were diving into the water for them,” said Kevin Lucero, 12, of South Lake Tahoe. “This has been a lot of fun, but I’m still waiting to get Michael Jordan.”

And this reporter also had a mission. It was near the end of the day, and young Andrew Wood was still one autograph short — Elway. I had not asked for an autograph since I was his age (it was Willie McCovey), but what the heck, this was research. So I approached the former Broncos’ quarterback after he had finished the 18th.

“Would you sign one for my son?” I lied. “Sure,” said Elway.

The kid was thrilled when I gave it to him, but still I couldn’t help thinking what it would have fetched on eBay.

— Rick Chandler’s interactive sports column, Capacity Crowd, can be found at NBCSports.com


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